When I am preparing a review post for this blog I will often do some background reading on the novel in question. This can include:
- reviews on Goodreads, Amazon (got to love the one star reviews!) and of course other blogs
- the introduction to the text, and often the blurb as well
- the novel and author’s Wikipedia page
- anywhere else that these reads take me – for example if the novel has a historical setting I will often read more about that.
But, and this is critical, I always do this reading after I have read the novel itself, never before. The reason for this rule is simple – I want to keep my reaction to the novel as authentic and genuine as possible. Reading about the novel before the novel itself will have an impact on that initial reaction. Apart from the obvious risk of spoilers, I have found that reading other people’s impressions of a novel can affect my own. That impression might be slight, but it will be in the back of my mind as I read, getting in the way of my own personal reaction. I don’t think there’s a danger of me being swamped by these perspectives – there’s no point in telling you what other people think about ‘Ulysses’ or ‘The Golden Bowl’, you can read there articles/essays/books yourself.
I appreciate I am making reading a novel sound like an experience that needs to be kept pure and unsullied by prior exposure to someone else’s ideas. I don’t think reading a critical response to a novel before the novel itself will necessarily ruin one’s appreciation of the narrative – it may even enhance it. But my preference is to try to make my own judgment first, then test them out with the rest of the world before committing my thoughts to paper.
A good example of where pre-reading can affect one’s reaction to a novel happened to me recently. I foolishly looked at John Sutherland’s otherwise valuable guide to “500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities”, ‘How to be Well Read’. Sutherland’s review of ‘As I Lay Dying’ says:
“It’s a bleak novel. One puts it down with relief, but with a certain gratitude for having read it”.
No spoilers, and a slightly ambiguous judgment, but this precis shaped my approach to the novel even though I did not want it to. I led me to expect harrowing scenes of depression-era rural America, like ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ without the laughs, and unsurprisingly that was what I found. So to an extent my impressions were John Sutherland’s, not my own raw, unfiltered thoughts and feelings. Who knows – if I had read this novel before the summary, I might have found it light-hearted or comic. Unlikely of course, but I deprived myself of the opportunity to find out. There have been novels where my reaction went against the tide of critical opinion – I found Patrick Suskind’s ‘Perfume’ highly offensive for example, whereas everyone else seemed to love it.
If you are reading in an academic context, ignore this advice. Background reading is essential, and it doesn’t matter a great deal when you do it. Reading a plot summary might make it easier to follow the novel’s storyline, differentiate characters, look at for key plot points, skim the boring bits, and so on. But for this blog, I am going to continue to maintain by “book first” rule.
What’s your approach – do you pre-read?